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Johnson: Tanaka whiff leaves this Cubs fan with mixed feelings

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Spending $175 million on – and including what’s essentially a three-year player option for – a largely unknown pitching commodity isn’t terribly prudent, even with player salaries exploding across MLB.

There is a good chance we’ll eventually see it as that the Cubs dodged a land mine when Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka picked the New York Yankees on Wednesday. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing that they keep swinging and missing on big targets.

Regular readers of this column know I’m a big supporter of the Cubs front office and what it’s doing. Rebuilding was, and is, the best course of action for the franchise, and for the most part, the plan has been executed well. Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs minor-league system 20th in baseball in its 2012 organizational rankings; its prospect guru, Jason Parks, recently tweeted that they’ll be second this year.

To me, however, the Cubs are very near, if not already to, the point where the present needs to become a priority. Their consensus top two prospects, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, are expected to make the big leagues at some point this season, as could promising infielder Arismendy Alcantara. Other highly-regarded prospects like Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson may follow in 2015.

I’m not saying the Cubs can or will win a lot in 2014. But if Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo get on track, Baez and Bryant come up and have some success and Almora and Soler continue to develop, then real contention in 2015 might be more than a pipe dream.

Going from winning 60-something games, as the Cubs could well do for a third straight season, to the high 80s in one year will be extremely difficult. Contention in 2015 would seem a lot more realistic if 2014 were more of a bridge year – prospects arrive, and the team actually starts to play passable baseball.

Tanaka would have expedited the process. Few, if any of the analysts I trust, have called him an ace, but most expect him to be a good big-league pitcher. Legitimate No. 2 starter is the description I’ve read most.

More importantly for the Cubs, Tanaka was an almost never-available property – a 25-year-old with serious promise who could be had for just money. Adding him wouldn’t burn a draft pick the way drafting an amateur or signing a veteran free agent would. Nothing would have to be given up in a trade.

And he’d fit the Cubs’ schedule so, so perfectly. This, his age-25 season, could be spent getting acclimated to a new league for a team that’s not going to the World Series anyway. He’d presumably be poised for better things, as would the team, in 2015, and he’d just be hitting his prime in 2016 when the Cubs might be growing into one of the best teams in baseball.

With all of that said, making a Felix Hernandez-level commitment for a player whose ceiling is something less than what Hernandez is and whose floor is ... I don’t know, Gavin Floyd? ... isn’t what I’d call a great allocation of resources.

Much as the Cubs want to cry about their own local-media contracts, which lag far behind the blockbusters some teams have recently signed, they do generate plenty of revenue. Their payroll is projected to be just $75 million or so in 2014. That, in today’s world, is small-market spending. And it makes me wonder if there’s fire to go with all of the smoke about Tom Ricketts being constrained by all the debt he took on when he purchased the team.

Honestly, I don’t mind Ricketts not spending now – and the last thing I want is for the Cubs to throw a bunch of money at an aging free agent to appease fans upset by the Tanaka whiff. I don’t mind Ricketts not spending now, that is, with the caveat that he’d better not skimp out on anything when the team is ready to compete.

And it’s getting frustrating, I must admit, to watch the Cubs miss out again, just like they did with Yu Darvish and Yasiel Puig, who have quickly become superstars in the states. If $48 million for Edwin Jackson made sense last offseason, surely a big play for someone who can become a part of the core of the next great Cubs team would too, even if the price is significantly higher.

So, ultimately, I guess I’m torn today. Part of me is happy the Cubs didn’t tie up money they may need later on many years of an unproven pitcher, but part of me wishes they’d act like the big boys they are revenue-wise and take a risk that would help their future as much as their present. And even the responsible part of me can’t help but feel disappointment that the Cubs’ timetable probably got pushed back a little bit Wednesday, even if that’s ultimately for their own good.

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